Not the least of the charms of the present-day New England lies in the quaint examples of Colonial architecture still to be found along its byways and in its villages, and in the later beautiful Georgian structures whose harmony of proportion and beauty of detail are the inspiration or despair of modern architects.
New England architecture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is eminently satisfying. It fits the landscape; it seems characteristic of the time and place. Derived and adapted it may be, but its worthiest examples are not mere imitation but have a certain indigenous quality. Moreover, to the careful student a progressive development through Colonial time, an always humanized relation to the environment, becomes apparent.
The architecture of Colonial America presents two distinct types, definitely and sharply marked off from one another, though the distinction has been too generally ignored. Passing by the log cabin stage as a mere makeshift, the term `Colonial’ may appropriately be applied to the architecture characteristic of the earliest period in New England up to the eighteenth century.
From about 1720 we find a marked change in the character of architecture in the colonies. More settled conditions and increased wealth made possible the adoption of a new style of architecture which was developing in England. This `Georgian’ architecture, as it is appropriately and generally called, the New Englanders adopted and adapted to their own ends. The Georgian may be interpreted as the English Renaissance.
After the close of the eighteenth century, much more pretentious structures were erected in New England, but, except in so far as the Colonial tradition survived, little or nothing has since been produced in architecture that is essentially characteristic of the region. The waves of Neo-Classicism, Gothic, and Romanesque revivals that have swept over the land, though variously interpreted by men of New England birth and training, have failed to absorb or assimilate anything from their environment.
If architecture is “frozen music” as has been said, it falls into as many schools as music itself. That of early New England would from this point of view be akin to folk music, rude and vigorous in its sturdy adaptation to the rough conditions of the life of the time. Georgian architecture, on the other hand, rather suggests the balanced measures and courtly grace of the days of the minuet,the polished artificiality and balance of rhythm defined in Mozart and his school.
However this may be, an indigenous architecture is always the mirror of history reflecting in permanent form the conditions of life which created it. There can be no understanding of early New England architecture without a clear picture of its historic backgrounds, without comprehension of the social and economic life that called it into existence.
Just as truly as the first log cabin stage was the result of the immediate pressing need for shelter such as could be shaped from the rude materials at hand, so the houses of the seventeenth century, built after the fields had been cleared and the more pressing needs of food and shelter had been met, were the result of traditions brought from England, modified by local necessities or conditions. A typical example of such adaptation to a local need is seen in the seaport towns, where the dwellings of the wealthy ship-owners almost invariably have glazed cupolas whence the proprietors could scan the horizon for the sails of their returning argosies.
The Colonial architecture of the seventeenth century was evolved from English prototypes adapted to local conditions in the new world. It evolved characteristic forms in New England as the result of local needs and conditions. Its structures show an indigenous flavor, a stanch resourcefulness and adaptiveness with local variations, the result sometimes of climatic and material differences in the north and south of New England, on the sea-coast or in the interior. There is an expression of rugged comfort about the dwellings. Utilitarian aims are constantly in mind in the plan and arrangement.
The typical seventeenth century dwelling, while a model of utilization of space, would hardly have met with the approval of the modern tenement house inspector. The number of bedrooms would today be considered totally inadequate for the large families and numerous children. As many as three slept in one bed, often with several beds in a low-studded room. To comprehend the limitations of space in many of these seventeenth century houses we must divest them, as they stand, of their recent additions.
In this rigorous climate of long winters, the fireplace became all important,the hearthstone had a significance now lost. In a common type of seventeenth century dwelling, the chimney was the core around which the house was built. It supplied not only heat and light but on its crane and in its Dutch oven the cooking was done. Around the great open fireplace the indoor activities centered. Here the family gathered,the elder in the inglenooks and choicer spots, the younger in the more remote and draughty places. Here the lads and lasses did their courting through a courting stick,a long wooden tube with mouth and ear pieces.
The most obvious characteristic of New England structures is that they are of wood. Except for Russia, Scandinavia, and Japan, nowhere else ‘does wood so dominate. General Washington coming to New England from the South, where stone and brick prevailed, marveled at the houses “being built almost entirely of wood . . . as the country is full of stone, and good clay for bricks.”
The builders had the English half-timber tradition. The rigorous New England winters proved the necessity of protecting such poor plaster as was then made and many of the earlier houses had their clapboard casing added at a later period. The origin of the name `clapboard’ is itself significant, for the earlier form was `clayboard.’ As lime-mortar was little used, clay mixed with straw was the substitute and the `clay-boards’ were placed over this to prevent weathering. This was equally true in America and England. We find the first cargo from Plymouth was of split-pine clapboards. The ” Fortune,” a small ship of fifty-five-tons, arriving from England in November, 1621, was “speedily dispatcht away, being laden with good clapboard as full as she could stowe, and 2 hogsheads of beaver and other skins.” As the quality of plaster has improved in England the necessity for clapboards has decreased. Still the clapboard tradition has been so firmly established in New England that frequently brick walls are still so encased.
The earliest meeting houses in New England were crude, cabin-like affairs. The earliest extant, the old Ship Church of Hingham, 168o, so called because its timbers were framed by ship carpenters, is typical and characteristic of the best of the early houses of worship. Its square form gives maximum of spaciousness at minimum expense of wall surface. The outlines with the truncated hipped roof are of severe plainness without the slightest architectural pretension. It is the only house for public or religious purposes of the early Colonial period in New England that has survived.
The Georgian architecture of old England was of course carried out in stone. Transplanted to New England the local tradition of clapboard or wood casing was followed. The change of material necessarily resulted in a repression of many architectural adornments and a concentration of ornament about the entrance doorway and the windows with an elaboration of ornamental detail in the interiors. In its first phases in New England up to the middle of the eighteenth century the Georgian architecture is characterized by rather heavy proportions, and by segmental curved pediments above the door-ways. The old Dummer House at Byfield, 1715, the Warner House in Portsmouth, 1723, and the Royall House at Medford, 1728, are excellent examples of this first stage of the development of the Georgian in New England. Belonging to this period too is the old Boston State House, 1728, a structure excellent in its proportions and pleasing in its poise, whose stepped gables are perhaps suggestive of the old Guild Houses of Holland. It has shared in the happy tendency of recent years to scrape the paint off old Boston and the pleasing tones of the dull hued old red brick add not a little to its elderly charm.
Faneuil Hall, I741, designed by John Smibert, displays the Georgian architecture in its more fully developed characteristics. Less appreciated architecturally because of the difficulties the observer has in seeing it, surrounded as it is by market stalls, it is further marred by successive dirty coats of paint. Its restoration is now being agitated, a fearsome thing under Mayor Curley’s administration. The Newport State House, 1743, designed by Richard Mundy, and Market House, I762, of Peter Harrison are other notable examples of this period.
Ingo Jones, the first to introduce the mode of formal classicism, had spent much time in Italy and had been employed to design a villa at Vicenza, where he came under the influence of Palladio. About the middle of the century Palladian influence became more pronounced. Exterior curves gave way to straight lines, the proportions more harmonious, the whole showing greater poise. The old Lee house, 1768, at Marblehead, illustrates this phase.
Under Sir Christopher Wren, who during the period of his education had traveled extensively on the Continent, the rich heritage of the Renaissance transmitted through Palladio blossomed into new adaptations of graceful proportions and beauty of detail. This development of Georgian architecture is characterized by a balanced formality of symmetry with refinement of classic detail. It is not the cold and adamant formality of the later classic revival, but is a living and local adaptation of classic forms breathing the true spirit of the Renaissance. It is the architecture of a society of increased wealth and culture reflecting improved economic conditions and the development of social life and amenities. It evidences a new order of society, an era of peace and prosperity. About the time of the Revolution the influence of the Brothers Adam, best known for their influence on the furniture of the era, penetrated to New England, strongly influencing the architects of the time. Charles Bulfinch of Boston and Samuel McIntire of Salem both elaborated the Adam tradition. The latter by attenuation of pillars and pilasters gave a new grace to the classic. Bulfinch, generally regarded as one of the most probable fathers of American architecture, has more indelibly left his stamp upon the architecture of New England than any one other. A graduate of Harvard, he traveled extensively in Europe, studying architecture. His most notable creation is, of course, the State House, 1795, on Beacon Hill, which in all its lines and features marks the transition from the Adamesque Georgian to the classic revival. Despite the massive wings which it has grown of late, despite successive coats of paint which conceal the harmonious colors of the red brick beneath,making all allowance for its superb position,the Bulfinch State House is still a structure of dignity, of poise and beauty. University Hall at Harvard is another of his creations, which in spite of severity of line accents the horrors of its later nineteenth century neighbors, and casts doubt upon the authenticity of its twentieth century parvenus.
The period following the close of the Revolution on the whole marks a decline in taste. The loyalists, who had been in large part the people of wealth and refinement, were discredited or driven out, and the wealth and power in many cases was in the hands of persons who in the turmoil had come up rapidly from a lower social status. These nouveaux-riches, who owed their advancement to their radical and Revolutionary enthusiasms, built with less discriminating taste.
The Georgian tradition, however, had become deeply ingrained and was perpetuated by the carpenter builders of New England well into the nineteenth century. In the dwellings and meeting houses constructed by these artificers, for the most part nameless, they showed in many cases a rare degree of taste and adaptability. Among them Isaac Damon of Northampton, some of whose churches still stand at Hartford, may well be designated “architect.”
To Russell Warren is due the architectural distinction of many of the residential mansions built by the wealthy residents and ship-owners of Rhode Island, especially of Bristol. A distinctive feature of his work is the well-proportioned cornice or parapet rail and the artistic devices lavished on the decorations of the doorways. “Here in a charming geometric group, pilasters, fan-light, panels, and hood, with all their chaste embellishment, form a focal centre.”
Asher Benjamin of Greenfield published in 1796 a compilation of designs and drawings, “The Country Builders’ Society,” which like the pattern books of Sheraton and Adam in furniture, exerted a wide influence on the carpenter builders of the time.
The classic revival, largely an influence direct from France, led to porticoes and pediments, stiff and wooden, obsequiously placed in front of buildings or court houses without any feeling or adaptation. The classicism of the revival adopted forms without meaning. It reproduced however incongruously, without regard to relations. Doric porticoes and colonnades of Corinthian columns were attached to public buildings because the appropriation permitted, or on the fronts of dwellings because the owner had the price.
The early Gothic revival which followed the neo-classicism of the first part of the nineteenth century produced only horrors. H. H. Richardson with his transplantation of the Romanesque forms of western France produced buildings perhaps overmuch admired in his time but which cannot be denied a certain satisfying quality however exotic. Trinity Church in Copley Square is his chef d’oeuvre, but his prolificness is attested by Romanesque churches, libraries, and railway stations throughout New England. Richard-son’s work though so clearly an adaptation displays genuine individuality and came near to establishing a school.
Since his day New. England has witnessed adaptations and reproductions of almost every possible kind of architecture, exhibiting varying degrees of success and failure. In the period following the Civil War, the French Renaissance as interpreted by Government architects and imitated by their fellows ran riot in granite and cast iron fronts. In the ’70’s and ’80’s, Boston had an epidemic of Saracenic architecture. About Copley Square, the Old South Church, the Hotel Victoria, the curiously domed skyline of lower Huntington Avenue assumed form when Mohammedan influence prevailed.
The greater architectural efforts in New England during the twentieth century have followed more or less completely either the Roman or the Gothic tradition. In the former mode, Guy Lowell has in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and similar buildings achieved distinction. But the Gothic has attained an even greater success. Its chief exponent is Ralph Adams Cram, whose ardor has made of the Gothic a propaganda and whose genius has produced structures of beauty with something of the spirit of the times from which they are adapted. R. Clipston Sturgis in his notable Gothic Group for the new Perkins Institution at Watertown has shown the same facility in the reproduction of Gothic forms that he has in the classic.
Worthy as have been the efforts of recent generations, New England architecture still connotes the Colonial and the Georgian.